Monday, March 29, 2010

Thirst (2009)

Chan-wook Park‘s new film is a complex film that is not easy to classify. Nominally a horror movie, the central character is a vampire, the film actually has elements of comedy, theology, melodrama, cultural invasion (and its analog of viral invasion of a body), romance and few other things as well. It’s a film that has almost too much on its mind. The film takes its own matters and mixes them with classic European literature, in this case Emile Zola’s "Thérèse Raquin". It’s an odd mix that doesn’t always gel, but none the less has an incredible power.

Here it is almost a year since I saw the film at the US premiere at Lincoln Center (with a post film discussion by the director) and I find my cage is still rattled. Its not so much what happens is bothersome, its more that its wide reaching story and its themes ring a lot of bells in retrospect.

The plot of the film has a will loved priest deciding that the best way to help mankind is to volunteer for a medical experiment to find a cure for a terrible disease. Infected with the disease he eventually succumbs and dies, but because of a transfusion of vampiric blood (its not explained) he actually survives. Hailed as a miracle worker the priest returns to the hospital where he had been ministering to the sick. Unfortunately all is not well. The priest finds that he needs blood to survive. He also finds that he has all of the typical problems of a vampire, and its no not possible for him to go out during the day. Things become even more complicated when he becomes reacquainted with a childhood friend and his family. The priest, with some of his animal passions awakened becomes taken with the wife of his friend. From there it all goes sideways.

This is an ever changing film. This is a story that spins through a variety of genres as it tells the very human story of a man who finds that his life has been radically altered by a chance event and who finds that he is no longer who he thought he was. It’s a film that you have to stay with to the end because the film is forever evolving into something else.

Its a film that has a great deal on its mind and the themes its playing with are constantly being explored in a variety of ways. The religious notions of Christian thought and belief are constantly being tweaked, here’s a man of god who now literally needs blood to survive instead of just the blood of Christ. There are different cues to the invasion of the West into the east- say western style mannequins in a traditional Korean dress shop. The film has enough going on that one could, and people probably will, write books just discussing the film.

The two of the strongest parts of the film are its vampiric elements and its romance

The vampire part of the tale is brilliant. There is something about how it lays out the ground rules and the nature of the “affliction” that makes such perfect sense that it pushes the old vampire ideas aside. Sitting in the theater I found myself amazed at how impressed how well it worked. I think the fact that it played more or less straight is what is so earth shaking. Here is a vampire who just wants to have a normal life. It’s contrasted with what happens later, it makes clear that living an existence of hunting humans really isn’t going to work. Its not the dark world of Twilight or Lost Boys, rather its something else. I personally think that the film changes the playing field from a hip cool idea or dream into something more real and tangible. (The sequence where the powers kick in is just way cool)

The romance is also wonderfully handled. Sure the sex scenes are steamy and well done, but it’s the other stuff, the looks, the talk, the gestures outside of the sex that makes this something else. There is a scene where the two lovers are playing mahjong with her family and everyone is having a single conversation that means one thing to the lovers and another to everyone else. I love the looks, the quiet stares as the forbidden couple look at each other hungering for each other and unable to act, the disappointment and heartbreak of betrayal both real and suspected, and the mad passion of possible consummation. This is one of the great screen romances of all time. It perfectly captures the feeling and emotion of deep passionate love (and lust). If you’ve ever loved deeply I’m guessing you’ll find some part of your heart on screen, I know I did. The statement “I just wanted to spend eternity with you” has a sad poignancy to it. It’s both a statement of what was the intention as well as the depth of emotion. The tragic romance will break your heart. (The last good romance of this sort I saw was Scorpio Nights about a romance in a boarding house)

I won’t lie to you and say that the film is perfect. Its not, as good as the pieces are and almost all of them are great (especially the actors who I have so far unjustly failed to hail as amazing) the whole doesn’t always come together. The various genres, thematic elements and tones occasionally grate against each other. Frequently I was wondering where the film was going. I hung in there even though the film seemed to be wandering about aimlessly.

Right after I saw the film I found I liked the film. I loved the pieces more than the film as a whole. However in the days weeks and months since I first saw it it has been pinging around in my head, and I’m guessing that it will probably always do so. It wasn't long before I quickly realized that the film was one of the best of 2009.

Ultimately terms like "Like" or "love" is irrelevant since this is a film that really should be seen since it has so much going on that it will provide you with enough material to think and talk about for days, or in my case a year, afterward. One of the meatiest and most filling films you are ever likely to find.


  1. I'm always on the hunt for good vampire films. I've grown disgusted with the over-romanticized de-mystifying of the vampire in flicks like Twilight. Your description of The Thirst leads me to believe there might be hope for the genre after all.

    I've also found that I enjoy Asian horror films because they are a lot creepier than the cinema provided by Hollywood. I look forward to seeing this movie. Thanks for the review.

  2. Your welcome. If you really love creepy see Screen at Kamchanod which was reviewed today. It will hang with you.